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On Clarity

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What do John Boehner and Rachel Maddow have in common?
Image: Screen shot from MSNBC, via The Blaze

One cannot but be dismayed by the extent to which pollution of thought is endemic in our culture.

The illness is ubiquitous: in Washington, in academe, on the radio and TV, among activists. Being clear, explaining oneself lucidly, seems to be an endangered form of human behavior. Was clarity ever better regarded? Or is the current attitude toward it a constant in history? One could blame the educat…

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A Postcard From Salzburg

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Members of Golden Dawn break up a dictionary launch in Athens. Photograph by Victor Friedman.

Salzburg, Austria—Mozart’s beautiful city provided an ideal locale for the conference I am attending here, where Slavicists and Balkanists have been discussing the role of ideology in grammar. Salzburg is close enough to allow scholars from Croatia or Kosovo or Macedonia to attend easily, without being actually in the Balkan region itself.

Matters relating to the great Balkan laboratory for sociolinguis…

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Which Side Are You On?

Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker

When Vladimir Putin seized Crimea, President Obama said, “Russia is on the wrong side of history on this.” Secretary of State John Kerry concurred, using exactly the same phrase. They were hardly breaking new rhetorical ground for the administration. In his first inaugural address, Obama stated, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willin…

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Over and Over Again

Athelstan

King AEthelstan presenting a book to St. Cuthbert, c.895-939. The Laws of AEthelstan included “over” meaning “more than” back in the 10th century. Illuminated manuscript, c.930, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the most part, a newspaper stylebook aims to fly under the radar, directing journalists to use the least obtrusive terminology and forms, so readers will not be distracted from the reporter’s message. But the stylebook is put together by individuals (editors) who have strong feelings about ri…

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Just Call Me …

Email_Names2 copyIn any given week, I typically write several emails to other academics I do not know or do not know well. As I decide what greeting to use, I am reminded of the politics of names and the subtle—or sometimes not so subtle—power dynamics at play in everyday conversations, often in even the smallest conversational choices.

For example, when writing to a colleague I’ve never met, do I have the right to assume we’re on a first name basis, despite the fact we don’t know each other? Or do I go wi…

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The Latest Style

ap (7)Just as California offers the most neutral and unobtrusive variety of American English (we don’t think of someone having a “California accent”), so The Associated Press Stylebook offers the most neutral, unobtrusive, and inoffensive choices in spelling, punctuation, and usage. For this reason both are worthy of note as reflecting the norm, the unmarked version of American English.

They come to their roles for different reasons. East of the Mississippi, American dialects are layered north to sout…

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Miss Prism’s Mistakes

In the greatest English theatrical comedy of the 19th century, a peculiar series of events involving an infant and a handbag are the subject of an 11th-hour confession by one of my favorite literary inventions, a governess named Miss Prism.

There are many reasons to love Miss Prism, among them the fact that in her youth she wrote a three-volume novel. Like all of Oscar Wilde’s creations, she has more than a bit of the playwright in her (Miss Prism is given to saying things like “I speak hort…

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Academic Language, Codified

DNA wordlA new semester of classes started at German universities this week, which means I’ve spent the last few days asking fresh rounds of students about their language goals. The greatest number in any class want, above all, to improve their speaking skills. But a significant group has also mentioned vocabulary expansion. Given that most of the students are on course to complete master’s degrees in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering, which at the Technical University of Munich means mos…

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No Language for Lottie

LottieEating

People sometimes take my skeptical comments on animal-language news stories (“Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity,” for example) as evidence that I regard animals as inferiors. Jeremy Hawker complained on Language Log that I showed no interest in animal communication, and that linguists “cannot mention the subject without making a snotty comparison with human language.”

In truth, the only animals I had showed contempt for were the bipedal primates who write science stories for newspapers. Back in …

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Final Madness

We’ve finally come to the end of Language Madness, and not a moment too soon. Just as Kentucky and Connecticut, two storied programs, will face off tonight in the NCAA men’s basketball finals (finals  instead of final  being another instance of rampant pluralizing), the LM tournament closes out with a classic matchup.

To recap, we started out with 16 “sins against the language.” As many have noted, they were a mixed bowl of wrongs. Some were mistakes or “mistakes” people love to hate, such as th…